Virtual Reality comes with great possibilities. These possibilities stem from what we can call the essence of VR: it lets us make our thoughts into reality. Our ideas, which normally have only a flimsy degree of subjective reality—they exist only in our thoughts—can now be made objective and external. Although we perceive the virtual as external and objective, however, it is nevertheless still virtual, making Virtual Reality a kind of oxymoron of technology. The experience it produces is a kind of half-reality, and its qualia is affected by our experiencing the unreal as real.
As we’ve discussed in depth in our piece on Virtual Embodiment, what makes VR possible is the human susceptibility for illusion. Our consciousness, or mind, seem to have the same nature as gas; it completely fills the vessel in which it is kept. In this way, we can greatly alter our particular selves and our general experience based on how, and in what, we immerse ourselves in.
Not only can we easily identify with a virtual body as it if was our own—projecting real and phantom sensations to it—we also let our virtual bodies, and our virtual environments, affect our selves. Whether it is through reducing anxiety by means of exposure therapy, creating out-of-body experiences to increase self-compassion, or switching perspectives to aid in understanding and empathy, VR has a capability of acting as an intervention—breaking our narrative in order to provide new perspectives. Humans have, as Jaron Lanier framed it, Homuncular Flexibility, we can adapt to other bodies, almost as easily as we can adapt to other worlds.
Ethical Problems of Virtual Reality
The way that VR is intervening with our normal relationship to reality can be as much a cause for concern as it can be a grounds for hope. In their brilliant paper on Ethics in Virtual Reality, Madary & Metzinger writes how VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as “conscious experience,” “selfhood,” “authenticity,” or “realness.” As with other radical interventions, such as strong drugs, there is concern as well as hope, for how our relationship to the real world may be altered. For instance, Madary & Metzinger (2018) especially highlight the possibility of Depersonalization/Derealization (DPDR) disorder as a result of prolonged exposure to VR. Depersonalization, and Derealization, is characterized by a feeling of unreality—like a waking dream—where one no longer feels agency over one’s self and perceives the world as illusory. This may be an issue because VR technology manipulates the psychological mechanisms involved in generating experiences of “realness“, and so may alter how we view reality at a fundamental level.
In this piece, however, we will not dive deeper than this into the ethical problems of VR technology—here we refer to Madary & Metzinger’s thorough discussion. These are interesting questions, and we believe there will be advantages as well as disadvantages related to the features of VR that makes us reconsider our relationship with reality. In this piece, however, we will instead discuss how VR actually may help those with reality-shattering disorders, such as Schizophrenia.
Virtual Reality as a tool against Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a disorder in which the person who has it suffers recurring episodes of psychosis. A psychosis is further defined as being in a state of mind where one does not know what is real and what is not real. Schizophrenia is a reality-shattering disorder whose qualia—what it is like—is most likely impossible to imagine unless one has experienced it. For non-sufferers, reality seems relatively stable. Schizophrenia is similar in conceptual terms to the technology of VR in that provides an illusion which plays with the real and the fictitious, however, for the schizophrenia sufferer to tell what is real from what is not, is very hard. It is their mind and not their environment which is changed, although their environment as well may be mediated in a totally different manner through their minds.
Now, some Schizophrenia sufferers have trouble with voices inside their heads, telling them what to do, how to feel, etc. These are usually aggressive or afraid. For many, this is their personal demon that is making their life a living hell. This is where VR comes in:
VR can aid in actualising these voices as external reality, and thereby it lets the users be able to confront them.
This ingenious idea resulted in a project developed by psychiatrist and researcher Alexandre Dumais. For this to work, the Schizophrenia sufferer has to describe their demon and providea list of phrases that the demon may confront them with. Then, a virtual representation of the demon is created in Virtual Reality, allowing the demon to be summoned into this world, making it more “real,” and thus possible to confront. Preliminary results shows a great reduction in symptoms from this experiment. Although at first, the patients find the confrontation with their demons to be very hard indeed, over time it is possible to learn to fight back.
Virtual Reality is a powerful intervention. Although we may know that what encompasses us is simulated, we nevertheless, in many ways, respond to it as if it is real. In other words, the technology of VR mediates reality for us, and plays with the mechanisms under which realness is configured. This may in turn affect how we view reality itself, for better and for worse. Sometimes, a re-evaluation of who and where we are can be very fruitful and it may help to ground our selves even more, paying attention in a mindful way to how we are existing in relation to our worlds. It may, however, also be too much if a person is unstable and spends very large amounts of time in VR. On the other hand, we discussed how VR may help those who are suffering reality-shattering disorders such as Schizophrenia. These may experience “unreal” phenomena such as voices, etc., which VR ironically enough can make “more real” and, as such, aid in manifesting and insert the phenomena as external, so it is possible to confront it. This is a great idea that really utilizes the novel power of VR to do good.
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